How to make learning stick

Professors share strategies to help us learn more effectively


ST. LOUIS – You're never too old to learn something new, but what's the best way to make that learning stick?

Psychology professors Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel, from Washington University, are leading experts on human learning and memory. They are studying how we learn most effectively and how we can remember what we learn longer. Their book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning offers students, educators, and life-long learners suggestions to improve learning and retention.

"People underestimate how many times they need to practice something before they really know it," said Roediger.

The professors say students need to review information five to seven times. That's why it's best to break up study a little bit every day, with different topics every few days.

"You don't want to cram it all in one day 'cause then like you have to process so much," said elementary school student Sam Finch.

While cramming is a common study strategy, it's actually not very effective when it comes to making learning stick.

A better strategy is to space out your studying, forcing your brain to overcome some forgetting to recall the facts. That leads to learning that lasts.

Another trick -- mix up your learning. Variety is key.

"If you're a college student, and you're taking five subjects, well, try to study a little bit on each one every day," said Roediger.

For students of all ages, when it comes time to remember - or retrieve information - play detective. Ask yourself questions, like "What if?" "How?" and "Why?"

"Once you explain why, that understanding leads to perfect memory," said McDaniel.

Quizzing is also important, by the teacher or on your own through flashcards, because it helps keep information at the top of students' minds.

Roediger says many students re-read the textbook as they are studying. He cautions students not to do that because re-reading gives the brain false cues that the student knows the information better than he or she really does.

Finally, try not to be frustrated when learning something new is difficult. The experts say students should seek learning opportunities with "desirable difficulty" because when learning is challenging, it is more likely to lead to retention.

To learn more about the book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, click here.

To read more about Roediger and McDaniel's research, click here.